Some may think it unusual that the heads of a global development bank and an international conservation organization should make common cause to protect the world's forests. The interests of finance and ecology are more often seen as being in conflict. But the need to break free of such stereotypes is urgent. The world's forests are dying, and it is only by acting together that we can help save them.
Nearly two-thirds of the earth's original forest cover is gone, and what remains is disappearing at the rate of more than one acre per second. In the past three months alone, the Brazilian Amazon has lost forests covering an area the size of Belgium to fires set deliberately to clear land. Nearly all of Southeast Asia, meanwhile, remains cloaked in acrid smoke from forest fires that have been burning on and off in Indonesia for more than a year.
The ecological cost of this destruction is devastating. Scientists estimate that about 100 species are driven into extinction every day, primarily through loss of their forest habitats. Many of these plant and animal species are critical not only to the earth's biodiversity but to specialized fields such as medicine. A frog living in Peru produces a painkiller more powerful, but less addictive, than morphine; a flower growing in Madagascar is used in the treatment of leukemia. But forests are more than nature's pharmacies; they absorb the carbon gases that create global warming.
Like the ecological costs, the economic costs of deforestation are astronomically high, running into the billions of dollars annually. In the end, the burden of these costs falls most heavily on those who can least afford it: the poor of the developing world. Too often, conservation is depicted as a concern of the rich, a luxury the poor cannot afford. This view is tragically shortsighted.
Economies cannot remain healthy unless the resources on which they depend are sustainably managed. True, rich countries can afford to spend more on conservation than poor ones. But economies that degrade their environments for short-term gain are rarely stable and never sustainable.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in our mismanagement of the world's forests. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro six years ago, the international community acknowledged the danger and committed itself to a more sustainable future. But that promise has not been kept. Forests are often called the lungs of the world for their role in helping to regulate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Yet everywhere we look, from the rain forests of the Amazon to the boreal forests of North America, the lungs are gasping.
As leaders of organizations concerned about both the ecological and economic viability of forests, we believe we must do more to save them. Therefore, the World Bank and WWF have formed an alliance for the conservation and sustainable use of forests.
This alliance has two objectives. Currently, only 6 percent of the world's forests are protected: We propose to increase that figure to at least 10 percent of each of the world's major forest types by the year 2000. There are some who will say this is not enough, but we believe it is a realistic interim goal -- the first step in a long process to save the planet's biodiversity. Second, we will work with countries, assisting them with our resources and our expertise, to put 500 million acres of forest under independent certification by 2005.
Twenty-one countries in addition to Brazil have pledged to meet our 10-percent target, and we will work to get similar commitments from others, helping them with both the science and the resources required to select and protect their forests. We will do what it takes to make it happen.
By itself, however, this will not be enough. We also must reform forest-management policies and make conservation investments involving all levels of society. Governments must be encouraged not only to create more ecologically representative protected areas but to surround them with sustainably managed buffer zones. Verifying sustainable management through independent, third-party certification can be an invaluable means toward this end. Offering consumers the choice of buying "good wood" -- products certified as having come from responsibly managed forests -- can harness the forces of market demand to the drive for sustainable forestry.
Last, but not least, to conserve forests we must take into account the needs of people who live in them. Creative mechanisms such as transition funding must be developed to help local communities invest in sustainability. In all of our endeavors, we must be particularly sensitive to the needs and rights of indigenous peoples.
We recognize that none of this will be easy. But if others -- other governments, institutions and organizations -- will join us, we are confident that we can meet the challenge of saving the forests on which we depend, just as surely as we do our own lungs, for every breath we take.
James D. Wolfensohn is president of the World Bank. Kathryn S. Fuller is president of the World Wildlife Fund-US.
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